The right chemistry makes hard cider look easy

Angelina Choy, who studied chemistry at Northeastern, said she never expected to work in a cider house. Here, she stands among the company’s 15 fermentation tanks. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The production floor of Downeast Cider House in East Boston is a study in contradictions. Rock music is barely audible above the thumping of carefully calibrated air pumps that move juice from one tank to another. Employees in Carhartt overalls and backwards baseball hats are making constant calculations of sugar and acid levels in the slowly fermenting juice. A sophisticated centrifuge spins out excess yeast and sediment from what will become totally crushable hard cider.

Left: Angelina Choy, assistant cidermaker at Downeast Cider House, pours fresh-pressed apple juice for a taste test on the production floor. Right two: Choy adjusts the flow valve on a hose that carries apple juice from a tankard truck into holding tanks at the cider house. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Angelina Choy, an assistant cidermaker at Downeast and a Northeastern graduate who studied chemistry, fits right in.

“This is not what I expected to be doing when I was thinking about jobs in college,” Choy said, standing on her toes to pour fresh apple juice for a taste test from a 16,000-gallon holding tank that reached nearly to the ceiling of the warehouse.

“But I love this. I love what I do,” she said.

Cidermaker Adam Threlkeld (left) and Choy (right) stir 300 pounds of chai tea spices into a "tea tank." The mixture, along with 400 pounds of pumpkin puree, will be added to cider to make 10,000 gallons of the company's seasonal pumpkin spice blend cider. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

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The production floor, where Choy works is where tens of thousands of gallons of apple juice become Downeast’s craft hard cider every day. It’s loud. There are pumps running, hoses snaked along the ground, and a pasteurizing machine that quickly heats up the juice to 175 degrees Fahrenheit and just as quickly cools it back down. There’s a canning operation, in which thousands of aluminum cans clank through a conveyor system where they’re filled with finished cider. And in the midst of all that, there’s Choy and her colleagues, doing science.

She has to know exactly how much yeast to add to the juice in order to start the fermentation process. In that process, yeast breaks down the sugar in apple juice and turns it into ethyl alcohol, creating an alcoholic apple cider.

After cleaning out a pipe used to deliver fermented cider to a pasteurizing machine, Choy prepares parts to re-install the pipe. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Downeast has 15 tanks of juice in various stages of fermentation. Choy will help measure the density of sugar in the juice, as well as the acidity, to clock exactly when it’s become alcoholic enough to sell.

She was explaining all this, and explaining the company’s new “in-line mixing system” that saves cidermakers a step when they’re mixing in flavors such as pineapple or pumpkin, when her colleague, Chris Geany, poked his head around the corner.

“Angie, do you know if the media in the lab has cycloheximide in it?” he asked.

“It doesn’t,” she responded, not missing a beat.

“What’s funny is that I didn’t drink a drop of alcohol until I turned 21; I just wasn’t into it. And now I make alcohol for a living. What are the odds?” Choy said. Here, she stands among thousands of empty aluminum cans awaiting cider. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Geany was asking about a chemical compound that prohibits the growth of certain bacteria in the cider, because he was running quality control tests on the product in Downeast’s lab, Choy explained. She had been filling in in the lab for a few days while Geany was out, so he was just catching up on things.

The interaction struck the heart of what Choy loves so much about her job: It’s complex chemistry used to make something that you can kick back and enjoy.

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“The people in the alcohol industry are just very chill, for lack of a better term,” she said.

When Choy started studying chemistry at Northeastern, she assumed she would become a doctor or a pharmacist.

“Not because I was particularly passionate about either, but I just thought, ‘That’s what people who study chemistry do. That’s just what you do,’” she said.

In that vein, Choy worked at a pharmaceutical company for her first co-op. She hated it.

“The people were nice and everything, I just realized while I was there that I did not want to be in a lab for the rest of my life,” she said. “But the experience was still valuable, because I realized something I didn’t want.”

Choy installs a newly-clean valve to one of Downeast's 15 fermentation tanks. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Her second co-op, working in the quality control lab at a company that makes beauty products, was a little closer to what she wanted.

“I loved using my hands, working with the product,” she said. “I loved that it was so hands-on, and I could see the result of my work.”

Finally, in a move Goldilocks would appreciate, Choy’s third co-op did the trick. She worked in the testing lab at the Sam Adams brewery in Boston, and there, she found just the right fit.

“It just clicked. It felt like something I wanted to do with my life,” she said.

So, when she graduated in 2017, she went to Downeast. It’s not always glamorous work; Choy regularly scrambles up onto tankard trucks or cleans pipes and tanks and hoses on the production floor. But she loves the physicality of it, she said. In fact, one particularly dreary day in late September found her climbing aboard a scissor lift to pour six 50-pound bags of chai tea spices into a brew that already included 400 pounds of pumpkin puree and would ultimately become 10,000 gallons of Downeast’s pumpkin blend cider.  

“What’s funny is that I didn’t drink a drop of alcohol until I turned 21; I just wasn’t into it,” Choy said. “And now I make alcohol for a living. What are the odds?”

On the canning line, empty aluminum cans are blasted with air to remove any stray debris before they're filled with fresh Downeast cider. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University